India and fiction

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ENGLISH is certainly the language of colonialists. But so are Sanskrit, Persian, French, Portugese and Computer. Ask any illiterate tribal or peasant. The history of India has been a long and chequered one of crossings and wanderings and conquest, by sea or water, by air or by ideas. Our vocation, as sociologists, disallows the possibility of engaging with fiction or speculation, unless they appear as collective representations. Indeed the debate around hierarchies and the complexities of language and dialects will always continue. Sociologists are generally wary of non-dualism, just as much as theologians. If everyone believed in the possibility of inclusion then many people, particularly theologians and empirical anthropologists, would be without a trade. Sociologists glean off the gatherings of diversity and resilience.

If English is seen merely as the language of power, uncontested power, then the reality of the Indian subcontinent would fail us completely. The truth is that English is alive and kicking inspite of boards painted by local painters which might leave one breathless by their spelling. The reasons for this are three.

English is a language of power because it has the power to mediate. It belongs to no one, so it can be used by all. There are hilarious confrontations recorded by our scribes, where Hindi wallas send letters in Hindi to Tamil wallas who reply back in Tamil. So often English intercedes as a third language. Further, it is a language which has colonized the world, so that American dictionaries exist in computer software, but American is only a dialect of English like the pidgin spoken in many parts of the world. Emily Dickinson wrote in English, as did Henry James or Mark Twain, Poe and Melville and Thoreau. They were Americans writing English, a similar status which many of us in our country have – Indians writing in English. The language of state and statecraft are in the hands of those who rule.

When the French left India, or the Portuguese did, some small enclaves like Pondicherry, Chandernagore, Goa, Daman and Diu remained behind as symbols, museumising in time the urban, linguistic and culinary significations of a robust slice of history. Twenty years ago Raimundo Pannikkar asked an audience in Delhi, ‘If French colonialism had survived or Portuguese colonialism had, what are the ways their language and culture would have affected us?’

The accidents of history – premeditated sometimes, though that sounds like a malicious contradiction – left the British as a master race for four centuries. But what is interesting is that the resilience of the Indians has come from accepting the institutional regimes that were imposed upon them, whether by force, custom or consent, and actually continuing to carry on their lives as best as they can. This is a history of millennia and it is about a culture of poverty. Yet, would one accept the tenuousness of rule, if there is injustice. The Indians have made an art of maya, which allows them to imagine better worlds wherever they are. So English has survived, even with the poor, because it is the language of opportunity, it is the language of globalisation. The Malayali nurse, the UP bhaiya, the Baul singer… the list is endless. Who has not made it good in a globalised multicultural world with the rudimentary knowledge of the English language?

The second reason for the survival of English is that it is a language of commerce. This is independent of it being a colonizing, imperialist language of state machinery in its global interactions. Banking, trade and e-commerce have united the world in a form of capitalism that survives on hedonism. Advertisements have used the English language even in the most remote villages and obscure towns to sell what they have to. E-commerce means that spellings and grammer are not primary – a heart warming dyslexia has overtaken the world. Young people understand that visuality and orality are more compelling than grammar – the meaning is the message and the form is to spit at the erudite and literati. These are some of the grand gestures of modernity, not to be frowned upon in a ferment of rage over what constitutes the pure form.

Democracy is about the market place. The forum is still dominated by the young healthy and wealthy males, or older stable powerful established males, but it looks like the brevity of words and the simplicity of the message – power, money, sex – remains the uniform code. Women, when they push into the system, must either camouflage intention or behave like the boys. Ernest Hemingway, well known as a great hunter, always had a young healthy huntress travelling by his side. He was the boss and he wrote, she carried the guns and communicated that she could shoot. English as a language of sport (everything’s CRICKET) or of business has made its compelling legitimacy known to the world. The colonial self-conscious sense of guilt about the past has recently been blown apart by their consummating support in ridding Iraq of its dictator as well as its natural and cultural wealth.

The third problem directly pertains to us, that of English as a literary language. Multinationalism implies that today people belong to many different worldviews simultaneously. It is impossible to belong anymore to a compartmentalized world. I am sure this has been the history of the world if not of groups or individuals for centuries. In 1930, after the collapse of the pepper trade with the West, following the First World War, my grandfather’s business went awry. He was a man given to sharp and compulsive dealings, a self-made scholar of sorts. My grandmother told me when I was ten or twelve years old that grandfather had an English pen-friend, a woman who sent him books from England. Perhaps I had asked her where those blue and brown calf-leather, gold-embossed volumes of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Donne, Browning had come from.

In 1968 when my grandfather suffered a near fatal stroke – he would have been 80 or more – he returned home for a brief while prior to dying. Though hopelessly in a state of senile dementia, he recognized his family, was shaved and tonsured by his barber every day and would lie quietly in bed. Yet, whenever it began to rain he would get up, take a wicker shelf with a dozen or more English books and put them out in the rain. My grandmother, who would frequently check on him while he lay serenely on his rosewood couch watching the rain, would suddenly notice the English works of prose and poetry out in the verandah catching the rain. Then throwing a towel over her head she would rush out and drag them in. Was my grandfather saying something about Macaulay’s shelf of English books? It was he who had made my sister and me sit next to him on the verandah while a woodpecker rapped a home for himself in the thoon or column of wood holding up our roof. We recited ‘A lily of the day is fairer far in May’ over and over again till we knew it well. I was eight years old when he taught me that verse, a grand gesture from a man who didn’t like children over-much and was by nature strict and careful with time as he was with money.

Now while the debates go on about multinational companies, bhasha writers, awards, ‘Rushdie’s opinion’ – I am very puzzled. A love for language, as rural or forest peoples singing songs to the seasons or to their gods or wives or crops, comes from the contexts of their life. A love for English or Sanskrit or Greek or Telugu comes from just such specifics of contexts. For me there was no reincarnational sense at age six when I thought of myself, ‘I know when I use a word wrong in English. I just know.’ It was my third language in early childhood, not as decreed by the state, but by the contexts of my upbringing. Malayalam was first, since my parents, my sister and my ayah (chedathi – or classificatory older sister) all spoke Malayalam at home. Hindi was equally significant and most loved because it was the mother tongue of most of my friends in the neighbourhood.

English was my third language learnt at school – a parrot language that went, ‘Ann sing to mother.’ And ‘Mother sing to Ann,’ ‘Father comes home.’ ‘Ann sings to Father’ for pages and pages with water cress, pianos and heaven knows what else. Was it divorced from my reality? Of course it was – but children are not skeptics, and we were as trusting of the English language text as we were of the Hindi language, one which said that Shastriji (who would be a revered prime minister extolling the jawan and the kisan, a very simple wonderful man) had swum a river to reach his school. Children believe in the ‘other’ and the plausibility of many worlds. So I learnt the English language and in time it became the language of greatest significance. My paternal grandfather had an English pen-friend perhaps, but my maternal grandfather had learnt English as a young man at a missionary college in the latter part of the 19th century, travelling for 11 kilometres in a bullock cart every morning. He was a village school teacher who taught Malayalam to sixth formers as they were known then.

My point is that languages when alive cannot be hierarchised. Language and parole are conceptual tools – in reality the symbiosis between speech and grammar is as woven as tongue to palate. Distinctions only allow for greater interlacing and greater power. For users like me, English is a bhasha language, and I am a bhasha writer. Hierarchies of language, of dialect, of great and little tradition, are festoons of the state. The state feeds the chosen ones – trips abroad, feasting and awards – and when the money dries up no one is happy. Writers may or may not get money, but both radical and bourgeoisie writers are equally pleased when patronized. Writers never scoff at money. Why should they? It allows them to live, gives them the pleasures of autonomy and generosity. Yet, I am drawn to the idea that there are thousands of writers and singers of tales in all parts of our country who continue to write and sing, invent and perform, even when the resources of welfare or patronage fail them. Writers and storytellers do not choose to be poor, hungry, dying, miserable – but if they are forced into situations like these, they would still try to write.

English language writers rarely suffer abysmal poverty. What they fear is lack of press. It seems mandatory to be recognized (even notoriety as a bad writer seems alright) in order to be seen as a professional writer. These are self-created hierarchies and not as dangerous as state-crafted ones where the Indian writer of English language fiction is always a Diasporite. There is a tragedy to that stance. Success as a writer in English for the state comes from one’s distinction as an Indian writer domiciled in a foreign country. Conclaves invariably list NRI writers as the most significant contributors to literature in India. One can well understand the angst of bhasha writers. Yet, we know that most people do the work they do because it helps them make a living (pay the rent) or because it is a job and everyone must be employed according to their status or their family’s expectation, because they like the work that they do, or because they are forced to engage in some gainful employment. Why must writers feel that they absolutely must achieve awards, distinctions, large sums of money, or feel that they’ve lost out? Most probably this feeling is an artificial hunger, induced by a globalised society. How could we hunger for coffee if coffee bushes hadn’t come our way, or tea, or vanilla bushes? Or chillies or tomatoes or potatoes or gulmohars or jacarandas? One could extend it to the horse and cow, I suppose, if it didn’t feel one was treading on some politically dangerous ground, like that of the Harappan horse. One should Chipko Neem Azadraktha and hope for the best.

I think the new preoccupation with being recognized is as new as television coverage and media attention. The masses of our people can’t read yet and don’t have the money to buy a newspaper for themselves. It is these shocking contrasts that make us what we are.

If we look at Amitava Ghosh’s In an Antique Land, some of these existential problems I have raised are dramatically and sociologically posed. Ghosh is confronted with the possibility that the subjects of his study are more curious about him than he could have imagined. Yet although they are ‘simple peasants’ they are amazingly perspicacious. They ask him a staccato of questions which leave him completely dumbfounded, and they ask these questions over and over again, centring around ‘the divinity of the cow among Hindus’ and ‘the cremation of the dead.’ What happens to this research scholar from a British university is the sudden realization there are categories of translation that have to take place when one tries to decipher a culture. His secular and now suddenly foregrounded Hindu identity, his understanding of language – English, Bengali, Egyptian – his cosmopolitanism, his return to the archives to decipher the relationship of Arab trade and commerce with the Malabar coast – all suddenly leap through print. It’s puzzling that the language of time asserts itself here – modernity and tradition, the past interfaces with the present in cunning ways. Would Arab traders in early medievalism use the western calendar while corresponding to one another to date their missives?

The curious thing about writing fiction is that historical veracity is never a focus. Why should it be? What is more centrally focused is that ideas should be paramount – new ways of thinking about the past and the present are demarcated. Nothing more is expected.

Susan Visvanathan